DANCE UPON SAND



DANCE UPON SAND, by Seamus Bayne:

I consider how fragile humans are as I bring my axe onto the shield of the cavalrywoman. The blade bites deep, and blood sprays forth. She drops her shield, screaming. Her blood is the coin of my revenge on the sorcerer king, Theisius, who has made me into a monster. I, Ordwin, the king of the beasts.

“Push for the gate, damn you, push!” I roar while grabbing the remaining arm of my opponent. I pull her off her mount onto the ground, under the horses — the hooves crush her face and torso to sickening effect, silencing her screams. Above, arrows sing of death from the rooftops, raining down on King Theisius’ palace guard.

The combat surges forward, but I stand in the stirrups so the enemy can see me: lion faced, horns of the ox, muscles rippling under black-furred hide. The monster their king made. Beyond the fighting, I smell Kadir before I see him; atop the west gate, he leads the defense. He waves his hand, and they sound retreat. His troops flee through the gate and behind the thick walls of the Old City. The fear of the filthy, human cowards burns my sensitive nostrils.

Kadir sees me, so I raise my fist and roar. His parting hand gesture leaves little doubt to his opinion of my victory.

“Good watchdog. Now, go lick the sweat from your master’s palm and tell him Ordwin is coming,” I say.

I dismount and walk to the wall to show my disdain for Kadir and his sorcerous king in a stream of steaming, yellow piss on the battered wooden gate. Satisfied, I order the gate blocked with debris and guarded before my cavalry and I return to our field headquarters. Camp followers wait outside for us and I pass my gelding’s reins to one.

The fox-faced Iho comes to meet me with a smile. I kneel by her side. “How is the change with you, Iho?” She smiles and clumsily hand-signs she is well. I pat her shoulder. “Go help with Thimble. Wipe him down well.” She says nothing — she never will — for the change took her voice. Her story is common among the beast people. Theisius alters his servants with potions to make them stronger, smarter, and more beautiful. When they fail him, or he is done with them, he banishes them. For those that survive, aspects of the beasts that empowered their traits are the inevitable consequence. We found Iho broken and dying on the streets of the lower city. She threw herself from a balcony rather than remain in Theisius’ harem. My people saved her life, but the change has been hard on her. Her story fills me with anger, but somehow she still smiles. I wish I had a handful of soldiers as brave.

I enter to the cheers, howls, and grunts of the beast people, my adopted clan. All of us bastard halves, quarters, and eighths of man mixed with fox, lion, bear, bull, pig, dog and more. Our headquarters — a three-story structure — is one of the few stone buildings in the New City, where most are wood. Built like a keep, it once protected the bordello of mistress Paracevia, who betrayed me to Theisius. Now it is ours, like all of the New City. I go upstairs to my queen’s bedroom and sweep a table clear, with a crash of silver and crockery. On the table I unroll a map of Sethiphera, and weigh it down with sour smelling, empty wine bottles.

Lothil, my queen, rolls over on the bed and growls. “Not all of us are creatures of the day, brute. Let me sleep.”

“Get up lazy cat, I need advice. You can lay about when your father is food for the buzzards and your belly is full with whatever our children turn out to be.”

She stretches, making the spots on her golden-fur dance. It astounds me every time I see it. So beautiful.

She looks petulant, but then shrugs and says, “Tell me.”

I point at the map with a talon-tipped finger. “The good news is that I’ve pushed them behind the walls of the Old City, but I need a way past the wall. The problem is that shit-eating Kadir makes us buy each street we take with more blood than we have to spill. We have too few combatants to breach a wall. We’ve been at this for a month. It’s going too slow,” I say, and punch one hand into the palm of the other.

Lothil gets off the bed, pulls on a pale dress, and licks my black-furred shoulder. “You’re covered in fresh blood. How do you expect me to think when you smell so good?” She puts her paw to my belt and whispers, “Press the merchant quarter. It’s our best chance.”

I stare into her eyes, her pupils dilate, and lust rises in me. I fight for focus in spite of the urge, the overpowering sweet smell of blood and her being in heat.

I growl and punch the table. “How does that help us with the wall? Why not push to the barracks or cut off the aqueduct?”

She runs her hand through my braided black mane and nuzzles my shoulder. I feel her purring against my hide. “Money, my beast. The merchant’s quarter will be rich pickings. A siege needs money to stay the course. It will enrage the nobles and wealthy. If they withdraw their support, it weakens my father’s hold on the city. Sovereign power demands the privileged are complicit in its rule,” she says.

I nod; of course, she is right. As a daughter of Theisius, she was weaned on strategy, deceit and nuance. Her advice has saved this siege a dozen times over since we left the hidden kingdom and marched on Sethiphera. “What of the keep? The merchant quarter will be within range of your father’s siege weapons.”

She pulls away and pours herself a goblet of wine, and I watch her pink tongue touch her lips after she drinks.

“We have to risk it. Those merchants will sneak out every last crown if we wait. I leave the tactics to you. I don’t care how you take it, but take it. If my father wants to burn down half the Old City we can’t stop him.”

“Our city.”

“It’s only our city when his head is packed in the salt of martyr’s tears.”

“That’s a lot of martyrs.”

“They’re never in short supply,” she says, and smiles.

“You start collecting tears; I have an idea on how to get to the merchants.” I run my hand up her maimed arm. I muss her fur and she pushes my hand away but her feline muzzle breaks into a smile.

“Save your ideas for later. Go after the moneylenders. They’re here.” She says, pointing a talon to the map. “There will be traps and secret doors, but I’ve a little something that will help. Now, get the gold and then I’m all yours, if you’re not too tired, or dead.” She laughs and I join her; my guttural chuckle still surprises me.

“I’ll bring gold, my queen. In the meantime, find a way into your father’s keep. Even with a deeper war chest we’re running out of time.” I pull her close and we lick muzzles, tasting blood and wine before pulling away.

“I’m trying, but I can’t think with you looking at me like that, and this requires thought, and some sorcery, so go.”

Beyond our bedroom door, my bear-men guards wait for me. I have never been sure, but I think Talos and Parthos are twins. They were Palace guards before Theisius banished them. Like the rest of my people whom the old sorcerer gave powers of the beasts, without a steady supply of his potions, we devolved into the beasts from which our powers came. In their case, the strength and toughness of the bear. They are indispensable to me for their knowledge of Sethiphera, even if their bear muzzles limit their speech.

“Parthos, I need someone who knows the catacombs, especially under the merchant quarter. And be discreet; I don’t want it known I’m looking.”

Parthos nods and growls out, “Yes.” Once they are out of sight, I pull aside the tapestry that hides a secret stair into the cellar. There among the dust and amphorae is another secret. I find the wooden rack marked in Old imperial. I pull until it pivots and swings open to reveal a door.

The door opens easily on oiled hinges into a dark room that stinks of human excrement and fear.

An aged female voice croaks, “Who’s there?”

“Can’t you see me? I can see you Mistress Paracevia. Do you know why I can see you in the dark? Because I’ve the eyes of a cat.”

“Who are you, beast man? Why’ve you done this to me? Why do you attack Sethiphera?”

“Because you sold a name to King Theisius. The name of Ordwin. Do you know who he was?”

She spits on the floor in contempt. “A fool of a Silrafian mercenary. He was using my slaves to spy on the caravans. He got me in trouble with the king’s guard. He deserves whatever he got.”

I run my hand through my braids and across my muzzle. I want to kill her for what she has done; her blood would be tart and sour, but the best old vintages are. I resist the urge because I was no different, once not so long ago. Mercenaries, one and all.

“Do you want to live?”

“You’ve freed the flowers of my garden . . .”

“Do you not want to live? You have something of value to me.”

She laughs. “I’m old, and no one wants a used up an old woman, even a beast-man. Kill me and be done with it.”

“Do you really think the only value a woman can have is her body?”

“I’ve been a mistress for six decades; I know what men want and what men think. You’re all beasts, inside and out.”

“You’re wrong. We’re not all beasts. I will spare your life if you help me. You have knowledge I need. Your business has afforded you the money to buy an unnaturally long life. Answer my questions and if you tell the truth, I will give you one hundred crowns, and set you free.”

“You’re awfully free with my wealth.”

“That is my offer, my one offer. Take it or leave it. I’ve reason to leave you here in the dark to starve.”

She shifts in her chains, and pats the remains of her filthy, once-expensive dress with hands that shake. “What do you wish to know?”

“It’s said you once shared the bed of Theisius himself. That you were his lover before he grew tired of you.”

“And it’s said you beast-men screw your goats before you eat them, too. What of it?”

I raise her from the floor and shake her like a half-full quiver. “Is it true?”

She cries out in pain. “Yes. Yes, it’s true. We were lovers, until his magic could no longer sustain my youth. Then he cast me out like the rest of you, you — refuse.

I lower her to the ground while she pants.

“Tell me, I’ve heard of a crystal. An Old imperial artifact.”

She shakes her head, but does not answer.

“It’s called the mirror of souls. Have you heard of it?”

“Don’t say those words,” she hisses in reply, “they will hear you.”

“Who?”

“The old gods. The — the mirror is not of our world. Nothing good can come of it. You should not even mention its name.”

“Then you’ve seen it?”

“No one’s ever seen it and lived . . . no one but Theisius. If you call that shambling pile of sorcerous meat living.”

“Tell me what you know of it.”

“He is its keeper. The old goat crowed about its fabulous powers to me once. Said it is the source of his long life. The fool never did know when to leave well enough alone.”

“Where does he keep it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think hard. I’ve water and food here if you can answer me.”

She is quiet for a moment; I can hear her stomach growl in hunger. “He’ll kill me.”

“I’ll kill you if you don’t talk. Don’t test me.”

“It’s deep in the old fortress, down in the Old imperial city. That is all I know. Now be done with me or be damned, beast-man.”

“I’m trice-damned already, crone. All we Silrafiki are,” I say, and toss her a bag of bread and cheese and a skin of wine. “If you’ve lied to me, my next visit with you won’t be nearly as pleasant as this one.”

She laughs and says, “If you seek the mirror, there won’t be a next visit from you. You’ll be dead.”

“We all die eventually — even you.”

* * *

Parthos and Talos wait for me in the common room with a disheveled-looking human. I take a jug of wine from a wide-eyed serving girl who until recently was one of the mistress’ slaves.

“I don’t bite, girl,” I say, and smile, trying to ease her fears.

“Yes lord,” she says. She hides her shaking hands behind her apron. I sigh and wave Parthos to join me at a table. I must learn to live with their fear. To them, I’m a monster. To me, they have become cattle. I hope we’re both wrong.

At the table, the two brothers push the human to his knees and bow before me. I gesture for them to rise, self-conscious of the deference.

“What’ve we here?”

Talos says, “Human knows catacombs.”

I look the human over. He is middle-aged, soft about the gut, and balding. “Tell me, man, what is your name?”

“Oopati, sir beast — I mean, my lord.”

“I’m told you know the catacombs.”

“Oh, no sire.”

I look at Parthos who shrugs and shakes him like a child shaking a doll. Oopati wails and my followers laugh.

“Stop!” I say, and Parthos does, letting Oopati sink to the floor sobbing.

“Don’t eat me,” he mumbles.

“We don’t eat man-flesh, Oopati,” I say, which is true, for the most part.

“That’s what they all say, then they’re roasting you on a spit after having their way with you. I done heard about the lower city.”

I scowl, for some of my people’s desire for vengeance had gotten out of hand when we first took the outer wall. Banished to live out their lives as beasts, many had scores to settle. I put a stop to it, but it didn’t take many rapine-fueled stories of flesh eating to terrorize the citizens. Man-flesh being tasty was another complication I tried not to dwell on.

“Those are rumors. No one’s going to eat you, but that doesn’t mean I won’t crush your head like a melon,” I say.

“I’m telling the truth, my lord. I don’t know the catacombs, just a few bits under the merchant quarter, sir. Please don’t eat me.”

I nod to the twins. “Good work.” I say to Oopati, “You’re hired. Welcome to the beast army. Parthos, get fifty of our best ready to move by nightfall. Talos, chain my new scout to something until then, and get him some food and wine.”

“Why should I work for you?” Oopati asks. “You’ll just kill me when I’ve done as you asked, and then eat me.”

“Ah, Oopati. You’ll do it because you’ve no other choice. I know how you feel.” I grin, though I feel no pleasure. “Let me tell you about a conversation I once had with a sorcerer king. He said, ‘We’re going to play a game together, you a pawn and I a king.’ Welcome to the game, citizen Oopati.”

* * *

The catacombs smell like a week-dead horse buried in wyvern shit. It is worse than I imagined, reeking of human excrement, rancid cooking fats, and putrefying flesh.

“Why don’t they just call them sewers?” a bull-faced soldier behind me mumbles, as we march single file down the narrow tunnel.

“Because they aren’t the sewers, those are below the catacombs. They smell far worse,” Oopati says under his breath as he walks in front of me. Behind me the bull-man soldier growls at Oopati’s comment.

“Easy, Oopati,” I say. “Do as I ask and you’ll be rewarded.” Not for the first time, I wonder if Parthos and Talos could have found a guide who wasn’t such a complainer. I am starting to think that eating the nasty little piss-wink would be more fitting.

“Here you go, lord. Beyond this wall is the vault of Mogabe the wise. He’s the most powerful moneylender in the city.” Oopati says, slapping the wall beside him. “It won’t do you no good knowing it. That wall is three feet of brick with ensorcelled mortar.”

“Where’s the entrance these moneylenders use to get into the catacombs, Oopati?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, lord.” Oopati says, looking down and shifting his feet.

“Parthos, rip off citizen Oopati’s right arm — slowly, please,” I say, and before Oopati can scream, Talos has a hand over his mouth and I can hear his shoulder joint cracking as Parthos begins to pull with his massive paw.

“Now, you’ve a few seconds until the joint separates. You’ll live, but be maimed for life. Do you want to answer my question or should I tell you what happens when the muscle starts to tear?”

Oopati nods his head with difficulty, tears running down his face.

“Where’s the entrance?”

Parthos releases his arm. Oopati shrugs his shoulder in pain and leads us farther down the tunnel to a blank wall.

“It’s here. There’s a door, but I don’t know how to open it — kill me if you like, but I can’t tell you.”

I reach forward to wring the answer out of him, but he screams and squirms loose from Talos’ grasp. With surprising speed, he sprints off into the dark tunnel. Several of my men move to make chase, but I wave them off. “Let him go. We have what we need; let the little worm hide in a hole.”

Parthos asks, “How open door?”

“Our queen’s magic trick,” I say, pulling a leather pouch from my belt. I open it and pour silvery powder into my paw before tossing it onto the wall. I start to think it is not going to work when a dull glow outlines a hidden door that grinds open.

I lead us single file up a winding stair. Above I can hear the angry words of men trying to be quiet. I signal stop and silence.

“Get those chests loaded, you lazy shits, I think I heard somethin’,” someone says above.

We retreat down the stair and line the walls of the stygian catacomb, waiting in darkness. I hear clumsy humans come down, burdened with jingling chests.

“Someone light a rush,” one of them says.

“I can’t find any. Must be in the tunnel.”

We let them all get into the pitch-black passage — their screaming starts shortly after.

* * *

We are not as lucky with all of the moneylenders as the first, but before dawn, thirty-seven of us return to the bordello with a wagon laden with riches. Followers unload the chests and haul it into the cellar for safekeeping. I sit on the cool, marble steps, thinking. I could stop now. We could leave Sethiphera in its finest ships loaded with its riches.

Sacking Theisius’ city and wrecking his economy would surely be enough for most men. I look at the moon through slit eyes, seeing as though it were day. No. It is not enough. Not enough for all of us he has used and left behind as beasts and monsters. It is not enough for my maimed wife, pawned off in a game. It is not enough for mute Iho, who was a plaything in his harem when she should have been playing with dolls.

It will never be enough. Not until he is dead. I close my eyes and clear my mind. Distant thunder rolls across the plains and I smell the fall rain in the wind. I hear my grandfather’s voice speaking to me from my childhood. “There is no water that can slake a thirst for revenge but that of the river of death.”

Inside, the common room is quiet, except for those who are nocturnal, who continue to pursue our military campaign with pleasure.

“Where’s the queen?” I ask, and a cat-man fletching bolts gestures upstairs. The bear twins join me, fresh from depositing chests in the cellar.

“Parthos, see to tonight’s take. Distribute some coin among the war leaders and tell them to reward their parties. I’m going to see my wife. Get some rest; tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.”

I open the door to our chambers and find Lothil reading a scroll and dictating notes to one of Paracevia’s slave girls.

“Did you bring me my gold?”

I walk behind her and pull a string of black pearls with a sapphire pendant around her neck. “Does this answer your question?”

“Are you trying to bell the cat?”

I undo my armor, dropping it on the floor and use a basin to wash, and then dry with a towel. “There’s more where that came from. Did you find me a way into the keep or through the wall?”

She rises and gestures for the slave girl to leave, and unties her dress, letting it fall to the floor. “Later, I’ve found something else I want to show you,” she says. Lithe, furred and beautiful; all four nipples stand erect. I cross the room and embrace her, lick her cheek, and run my hands down her back and onto her hips. Her smell is intoxicating.

“Tell me, does being in heat make the sex better? Do you burn to be touched?” I ask.

She bites my shoulder and her talons skitter down my spine, dancing over my many scars. “Words, words — too many words. Stop talking and show me you are mine, beast.”

I growl and carry her to the bed — the blood sings in my veins.

* * *

We linger in bed past dawn drowsing and indulging in pillow talk.

“Have you ever loved another, Ordwin?” Lothil asks, her hand brushing the fur of my chest.

“I haven’t kept count,” I say, and chuckle.

Lothil pokes me with a talon, “Not rutting like an animal, you great, hairy oaf. Love. How do you know you love me if you’ve never been in love before?”

“But we are animals.”

“Be serious.”

“Because I would die for you.”

“Why must everything be death with you, my husband? I am speaking of life. I’ve known you months, and before you no other man. Have you never felt love before me?”

I think of Vesgothe and her wild eyes. “Once before.”

“Tell me.”

“Silrafian are nomads, plains people, always on the move, always fighting for hire. We have little time for courtship. I was betrothed before I could hold a spear.”

“Yet, you loved her?”

“Yes, I loved her. I still do. Vesgothe was her name. She was the daughter of my father’s brother by his third wife.”

“Your — cousin?”

“Yes, we intermarry to keep our bloodlines pure. We’re fewer than we once were.”

“Why?” She asks.

“It is our way,” I say, “tradition I suppose.”

“What was she like?”

“Like you, strong, fierce. While I was mastering the spear, she was learning sword and buckler. She was like that, always a step ahead. I admired her, but she did her best to drive me away.”

“So, your great love was unrequited?” Lothil asked, confused.

“At first, yes. I was a runt with skinny arms and ribs you could count. I was in the way. She had eyes for Moregyn of Simak.”

“What did you do?”

“My eleventh summer I gave Moregyn a scar from one side of his face to the other in a blade-down — a Silrafian duel where you bind wrists and fight one-handed with daggers.”

“Sounds like the Imperial blood duel. And here I thought you might have brought her flowers or gave her the head of an enemy. So, that won Vesgothe over?”

“No. She was furious and beat me unconscious with a club for blinding him in one eye.”

“Ordwin, is there any part of this story that involves love-making or romance? Did you maim or kill everyone she liked?”

I stroke Lothil’s soft hair and smile. “It worked for you didn’t it?”

“That is different; I had no interest in the beast king.”

“I gave her horses.”

“What?”

“When I was thirteen, with fire I drove a herd of wild plains horses into a box canyon. I trapped them in the canyon and I captured the stallion. Once you control the stallion, the herd will follow. I presented my father’s brother with the herd as a gift to his family in her honor. It brought her name great honor in her father’s tent. After that, she became my sparring partner. She said that if she must marry a runt, he should at least know how to fight. Many of those scars you like to trace came from her lessons. At fifteen, we made love for the first time under the blazing stars on sweet, damp grass. She professed her love to me that night.”

She smiles in anticipation, “Finally. Tell me more.”

“We were to be married in the summer, but that spring our clan joined the Illurian crusade. We were on the Ionian plains for the battle of Aba dal Sewaan,” I say, and look into Lothil’s eyes. “She took a lance through the chest and died within arm’s reach of me. I held her hand while she drowned in her own blood. I stayed by her side, fighting until sunset. That night, I cursed the lost gods, and burned her body on a pyre of broken spear hafts. I’ve been running and fighting ever since.”

Lothil looks away. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I, but the dead go to judgment and we continue on fighting.”

“Is there ever peace?”

“There will be no peace for me, or my people — until we are forgiven by the lost gods.”

“Then why are you here? Why are we here?”

“Revenge.”

“What about love?”

“Love must wait on revenge.”

Lothil stares at me for a long time, but says nothing. She leaves our bed and calls for food and wine. Parthos brings in the tray instead of the serving girl. I rise and pull on pants and ask, “What is it?”

“Message from king guard.”

“King guard? Do you mean Kadir?”

“Yes coward king guard. Meet guild place, dark.”

“What’s he saying?” Lothil asks.

“I think Parthos is saying Kadir wants to meet at the guild hall at dusk. Is that correct, Parthos?”

“Close, close,” the bear-man says, somehow conveying sarcasm.

“Thank you Parthos, how did you get this message?”

“Fat coward tunnel man.”

“Oopati brought it?”

“Yes.”

“Is he still here?”

“No. Truce flag.”

“Damn. Get me twenty warriors and be ready to move in four hours.”

Parthos bows and leaves. Lothil lies down on the bed, naked, her fur kinked with sweat. “You’re going to have to teach them how to speak better one day.”

“Maybe. Where’s the guildhall? I didn’t think there were any guilds in Sethiphera.”

“There aren’t. My father disbanded them over a century ago, but there are ruins of an abandoned building — once the hall of guilds. It overlooks the cliffs of the Reeth, perhaps a dozen blocks from here.”

“Black Jump Alley?”

“Yes, I’ve heard it called that.”

“Gods of shit and thunder, the entire fucking New City and he chose the one place famous for suicide. Forget it, we’re not going.”

“We have to; Kadir might be willing to come to our side. He didn’t say come alone. We go in force and any tricks on his part will the death of him.”

“It’s a trap!” I shout.

“Of course it’s a trap, but we have to take the chance. We can take precautions. If he tries anything we capture him — or if we must, kill him.”

“I hope you’re right. All of my past dealings with the captain of the guard tell me he is a basket full of snakes.”

“I’ve been right so far, and there’s more to Kadir than you give him credit, Ordwin. He hates Theisius as much as we do, perhaps more. Now, enough of the past and the future, what shall we do with these next few hours?” she asks, licking her muzzle and parting her legs.

“You’ll be the death of me,” I say.

Lothil covers her eyes with her hand in obeisance to the old gods.

“Why pray? None of them are listening.”

“She listens,” Lothil replies. “My people say Death is the only god who can still come to Olayne. And, I am praying for you.”

“Death needs no encouragement from you, and neither do I,” I say, pulling her close.

* * *

Thimble pulls at the bit, anxious to break into a trot rather than keep pace with the slow moving lines of soldiers on foot. Lothil rides by my side dressed for battle, reins wrapped around the metal hook in place of her lost hand. She insisted we go in force, so here we march, two hundred strong with torches in hand.

Black Jump Alley is nothing more than tall stone walls and a cracked, black marble floor between buildings. The roof has long since collapsed and been hauled away by scavengers. Birds flutter about the empty windows. The back wall opens into the night. I have spit over that edge onto the cliffs. Down two hundred ells to the warehouses and docks below.

We fill the streets around the ruin in all directions. Lothil and I dismount and I nod to the war-leaders and Talos before entering.

Once inside the dark gallery I spot Kadir and several of his soldiers standing to one side, holding ever-light torches. He looks thin and worry worn.

“Could you have brought a few more soldiers with you, mercenary? I’m not sure quite everyone in the city is watching yet,” he says.

“It’s been a while since we’ve spoken,” I say. “It appears you had a safe trip home since abandoning me in the kingdom of the beasts.”

“I waited for you. I waited for four days.”

“Because you were too cowardly to come home to your demon king with no prize?”

Veins stand out in Kadir’s neck. “Because I promised I would, and I keep my word, Silrafian. Question my honor again and I’ll kill you without pause.”

“Brave words for a human. I could crush your skull with one hand. Your king’s gifts have been kind to me.”

“Not from where I stand, Ordwin.”

“Enough,” Lothil says. “What do you want, captain of the guard.”

“I’m no longer captain, Princess. My failure to return with the crown cost me that title. I’m a lieutenant now,” Kadir says, and laughs without mirth.

“Did you come for our pity, Kadir?” I ask.

“No, mercenary. I came to try and save your sorry body. But thanks to your stunt of bringing an army you force my hand.”

“I’m not the one who needs saving.”

“Don’t be a fool. The king has forces closing around us as we speak — there is only one chance for redemption.”

“Redemption? Kadir, you’ve gone mad. I’m not looking for redemption,” I say, “I am here for revenge.

Lothil steps between us and says, “Both of you stop it. Kadir, I would know your plan.”

“My plan is to save you both from the coming death that is being unleashed tonight by your father.”

“How?” I ask.

“Like this. Now!” Kadir shouts. From the corners of the gallery, men cloaked in magical shadows toss down globes that shatter on the black floor among us and my soldiers.

“Run!” Lothil screams, but we’re too late. A cloud of blue-grey smoke fills the ruined gallery, choking the air. Beyond the entrance, I can hear shouting and the clang of weapons. I hold my breath and try to reach Kadir, but he has disappeared and the smoke burns my eyes and nose. I am blind. I struggle to find an exit before needing to take a breath. Before needing to rest. But I grow suddenly tired. I stare at black marble. Just a moment to clear my head. Just a moment. A moment.

* * *

Icy water shocks me from one nightmare into another. The sick smell of herbs, decaying flesh, and antiquity greet me. And a familiar voice. I know this room, and this tower, and I know the voice. The voice of death’s hand upon my neck.

King Theisius cackles. “We meet again, eh mercenary, or should I greet you as a fellow monarch, oh king of beasts, most glorious of catastrophes?”

My tongue is thick in my muzzle and words will not come, only grunts.

“Your eloquence is moving,” Theisius continues. “Don’t bother. The drug has not yet worn off. Oh, Ordwin, how you’ve exceeded my hopes. You’ve been a welcome respite from boredom, and you rid me of all those sheep-licking moneylenders. Sethiphera’s treasury has never been so full. You will also be pleased to know your grunting rabble of failures has already fled the city. How can I thank you, son-in-law?”

I fight against the drug that dulls my mind and the chains that hold me to the floor. Finally, a shout of incoherent rage escapes my lips. The leprous sorcerer king nods.

“What’s that you say? Give Lothil to Kadir? My, my, my, you’re the generous sort. But then again, you’ve had your fill of her, haven’t you?”

I strain at the chains until sinews creak, my vision dims and his laughter turns into a hacking coughing.

“Oh stop, stop, I’m an old man. Oh, mercenary, how you amuse me. Now, let me see,” Theisius says and waves. His scarred manservant Megera brings a goblet of wine and sips it before passing it to the waiting king. He watches me and traces his revenge on his lips with his yellow tongue. “Lothil’s marriage to Kadir would mean we must ennoble him. How ironic. I guess we will make him a viscount. Moreover, my daughter is rather homely. I shall have to fix that too.”

I stop straining at my chains and listen.

“Oh, do I have your attention? Yes, I can cure her, or you, or anyone whom I have given beast powers. I haven’t had the interest. But now, thanks to you, I find myself motivated.

I find my voice. “Damn you, Theisius, give me back my life!”

“Now, now, Ordwin, don’t spoil my surprise — treasures like you are rare.” The ancient king sips his wine and tells a servant, “Bring in Kadir and my daughter.”

Kadir is the first to arrive. He wears the uniform of the captain of the guard once more. He meets my eyes but a moment and I wonder if I imagine a shake of his head. Behind him, servants bring a fragile looking human woman in chains.

Theisius nods to himself in pleasure. “Now Kadir and, ah, Lothil, I wish you be present when I pass sentence on this usurping pup who dared to think he could bring me low. First, both of you show him what power is. Prostrate yourself before me.”

I watch in horror as they drop to their knees and lay before him; and my hate for Theisius swells in me like the tide before the full of the moon. The pale woman is Lothil, my Lothil. He has ruined her fine coat of soft gold fur and strong limbs by replacing her human form. I turn away as my gorge rises but Theisius will have nothing less than my absolute debasement. He raises his hands and whispers backwards words that grip my head in invisible hands and wrench it to watch. I cannot even close my eyes.

“Now offer me obeisance,” the king says, his saffron eyes glistening with venom.

“We are yours, lord king,” they say in unison. I watch the tears roll down Lothil’s human face and I know that I’m not alone in my despair

“Let it be known, hence forth you’re to be married. Kadir Etla Suresh will be made viscount, and let your name be lord Blackdealer. Lothil, I have restored you, as I have restored your hand and beauty,” he says, “serve your betrothed and you shall live.”

Kadir bites back a gasp, and manages a brief, “Thank you, my lord.” He must not have known of his imminent nuptials. Lothil meets my gaze and looks away, ashamed. She has no more choice in this than I, and I love her still. Her gaze quenches the rage that warms my breast and I feel sadness, sadness for us both.

“Now, mercenary who would be king, as to your sentence. You will fight in my gladiatorial games. May you never know another kind touch for the rest of your freakish, miserable days. You will fight until you’re dead.”

“Damn you, Theisius,” I say again.

“Damn me? Ordwin, you cannot imagine how damned I am. You would steal a daughter, a city and my purpose without even knowing a tenth of the truth. Fool. Damn me? No, Ordwin. Damn you, and damn the last Emperor for leaving me here, alone. Now go to your death.”

“No!” Lothil cries, but Theisius waves his bony hand, taking her voice.

“Silence, harlot. Be thankful I allow the desecrated vessel of your flesh to continue living,” he says, livid.

I take some small pleasure that his daughter’s love for me causes him pain.

Kadir and Lothil rise to leave and I strain at the chains in the floor until the links begin to crack open. The room echoes with my roars and I pour everything into breaking the chains, that I might get my hands on the brittle pile of fetid sticks that is Theisius. The ancient king watches in silence while the room fills with guards and clubs. I fall down that familiar black well to the doorstep of hell where my people wait for their redemption.

* * *

They leave me naked in my cell below the coliseum for three nights to think black thoughts and second-guess my choices. Once a day my captors bring me food and water. The morning of the fourth day, they come for me with prods.

My gaolers are retired gladiators with weathered skin and black eyes. They shout at me from the edge of darkness, “Time to fight, beast!” Through a trapdoor, they push a box filled with the tools of my trade. They know only that I am a monster. I don the armor, and take up my weapons. I see no point in proving them wrong. The door to my cage rises and I am herded down a barred path into the staging area. I walk proudly to the center where I wait. Soon the floor beneath me moves and they raise me into the light above, and into the view of screaming men.

The coliseum opens around me. An engineering feat in any age, Sethiphera’s dates to the old empire. History haunts me a thousand years after my people’s fall from grace. An artificial horizon, filled edge to edge with seething, black, hatred.

“For the first time since his capture,” the voice of the announcer echoes across the sand covered floor, “the despoiler of the lower city, eater of children, rapine monster — I give you the Beast!”

The roar from the crowd is deafening. What little humanity I have left shrinks before the wave of loathing, but I stand tall before my jury.

“Today, for the pleasure of our king,” says the announcer, “the Beast will fight Ingve!”

If possible, the screaming becomes louder. I have heard of this Ingve. A popular gladiator. The slave girls spoke of him often, and fondly.

They chant his name until the cinnamon sands open and my opponent rises on a platform to join me in the light of our antagonism. He is wide-shouldered, dark-skinned, and only a hand less tall than I. Cords of muscle wind around thin, sparse limbs. I have fought his type before. He will have whip-like speed and reach on me. He wears a helm, guards on his legs and arms, and wields two short, wicked looking blades.

“Welcome gladiator,” I say, but he says nothing. He steps off his platform and bows to me before drawing his blades. I raise my arm to my chest in the salute of the legions of the old empire.

A hush descends onto the arena and I can hear a child crying. A breeze blows my mane and I can smell frying meat and sugared bread riding the smell of unwashed humans. Ingve stands at the ready, waiting. He is patient. Enjoying the air on my muzzle, I let him wait a moment longer before I draw my long dagger and pull my axe from the leather sheath on my thigh.

A sigh spreads like plague through the audience. Ingve and I stand, staring; though the faceplate of his helm hides his view, I feel his eyes, measuring me, testing me. The tension drives the briefly subdued audience back into frenzy. Their lust for violence is palpable, and I feel it, I ride it, and gods of my grandfather help me, part of me enjoys it.

“I would know you, Beast,” Ingve says, breaking the spell.

“Then come to me, champion. I am an open book to those who can see.”

Ingve laughs and says, “Meet me like a man, and we shall see who is open.”

I nod and pace forward, my paws sinking into the sand with each step until we are just out of each other’s reach.

“You made a valiant attempt to kill the immortal tyrant, Beast-man. It’s a pity I must kill you. I salute your effort,” Invge says, presenting one blade before him.

“Yes, a pity, gladiator. I’ll make you a bargain: whichever of us dies today will wait by the boatman so we don’t go to hell alone. It won’t be a long wait for either of us,” I say, tapping my axe against his blade, making them sing.

“Agreed, now . . . fight!”

His blades are the wings of doves in the rain. Were I not fighting for my life, I would marvel at his skill. Ingve spins, turns, twists and bends around me, his blades creating a chorus of steel’s age-old hymn to war. Though he is faster and more skilled than I, he is not as strong, nor is his skin as thick. A dozen light touches leave me bleeding, but not mortally. At least not yet.

We begin a slow circle around the arena, he working to keep me at arm’s length, and I trying to close. The spiral dance of our war-making traces behind us in the sand ever-shrinking circles until we reach the center of the arena. Both of us breathe like bellows; sweat rolls down our backs under the late summer sun.

“You are good Beast, but I am better.”

He seeks to engage me, but I save my breath and wait for my opening. He is right. He is more skilled, but he is also human. I am stronger, tougher and have stamina he cannot.

His long arms weave their work with perceptibly slower attacks and I slow to keep pace, drawing him out, and earning a deep cut on my chest and under my eye. They burn with sweat and the blood feels slick on my fur. Though he slows, I cannot wait forever, for I bleed from a dozen wounds and he none.

The coliseum is empty. The air still. I am alone with Ingve and there is nothing but the dance. I draw him into a slash at my side and parry with my dagger. I lead with axe in feint. I see him watch the silver blade come at him, see him react and move to block it. When he is committed, I reverse stroke with my dagger and throw his failed swing out of line. His left side exposed, I slam the dagger into his neck, beneath his gorget.

Rich red blood explodes forth in a geyser while his other arm still tries to parry the axe strike that will never come. I spin, leaving the dagger in its new sheath and bring my axe down into his shoulder, at the joint. His arm cleaves free and falls to the sand. Inside I feel no victory. The tools of a master ruined, his art forever lost to the craft.

Screaming tears me out of the dance and into the moment. I spin away and drop to a knee two-steps from Ingve. His remaining blade rises as if to salute me as he falls, his lifeblood painting the final stroke on the canvas of self-destruction. The screaming continues until they take me back to my cell, and I hear it still, some of it my own.

* * *

True to Theisius’s words, no healer comes to minister to my wounds. A box with bandages and salve are pushed through with my dinner, and nothing more. They do not curse me. They do not praise me. I am alone, and for two days and two nights I am left alone, until she comes.

I sit eating my meager dinner when a guard comes to my cage and motions me over.

“Say nothing of this, Beast.”

Before I can answer, he leaves and a familiar smell hits me like summer honey and fresh thyme.

“Lothil?” I ask.

She comes wrapped in a cloak and stands by the door to my cage. She is small, and human, and her broken heart is evident in her voice. “Oh, Ordwin. I am sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry.”

“But I am. For you, for me, for Kadir. I’m sorry we failed, and angry for being so stupid to think we had a chance.”

“I don’t regret trying, or loving you.”

“That is because you’re a fool,” she says. The salty smell of tears fills the space between us.

“Lothil, you must go. If they catch you here your father will kill you.”

“Let him try. I’m not his to give to Kadir. I am your wife.”

“Then do me this last gift, wife, and go. If you can, escape. Go far from this place and remember me as a man who loved you.” She leans on the bars and sobs. Nothing Theisius could do to me would match the cruelty of her despair.

“Go, please.”

She looks into my eyes — hers now human and normal — and nods. “Before I go, I have something to tell you, and a promise to ask of you.”

“What?”

“Take this ring. It is our custom to wear them when we are married. Wear it for me,” she says, passing the huge silver ring through the bars into my hand, where her fingers linger briefly in my palm.

“I will wear it.”

“Promise?”

“As long as I live, I will wear it. I promise.”

She stares into my eyes for a moment, then says, “No matter what happens here Ordwin, you’ve won.”

“What do you mean?”

She smiles and places a hand over her belly. “Your child is in my womb.”

“What of Kadir?”

“He knows. Kadir . . . doesn’t prefer women. We’ve come to an agreement — we will raise the child as our own. My blood and yours, and his name. The midwife says she thinks it is a boy.”

I reach through the cage and take her hand. “I won’t live to see him. You know that.”

Lothil does not speak, but nods, tears sliding down her oval face. We stand in silence, holding hands for a time.

At length, Lothil says, “We will have revenge. I will see every heir dead and our son upon the throne of Sethiphera.”

“Your father will outlive any heir, including ours.”

“No, he won’t. I have seen his magic failing him, Ordwin. The greatest sorcerers of the old empire rarely lived two hundred years, and he is well beyond that. Before our son is a man, I will put a dagger into my father’s neck for him, as surely as I did the beasts for you. I know how to make a king.”

I smile. “You’re still wild inside, my Lothil. I love you. Now go. I will wear your ring. Go with my blessing, and raise our son with honor.”

“Goodnight, for now, my beast. I will see you again.”

“Please don’t risk it. Let something I love live on, Lothil. If you get caught it will be your death.”

“There are doors beyond death.”

She leaves without saying goodbye. Vesgothe never said goodbye either. I begged her to live. She only smiled as her eyes went hollow. Those who stand at death’s edge have eyes that see beyond the false promise of hope.

Though I hate myself for it, I count the nights that pass hoping for Lothil’s return. She is stronger than I, and I do not see her again.

* * *

Months pass and I learn to fight as the dead fight, without fear, without remorse, without hope. I fight with everything, because I must. There are no tomorrows, no yesterdays, only today and a dance upon sand, a dance with death. Death has many faces. She came as poor, brilliant Ingve. She has come as a dozen other warriors, a steppes giant, an Ionian charioteer team, and a dozen lions.

Each time death falls before my axe and dagger, she goes to meet the abandoned gods of lost Silrafiki and she takes a bit of my soul. Soon enough she will have me, all of me.

Above me the voice of the announcer finds its way down through the arena floor, calling, “And now, once more, the Beast.”

The floor jerks as somewhere slaves pull on chains that raise me. I close my eyes until I can tell they have opened the trapdoor above me. The light streams down, bright and clear.

When the stage floor stops moving I open my eyes. The arena is empty except above me, as far as I can see, are humans lusting for blood. They scream and cheer, as many now for me as against. Above that, the gantry is strung with the fruit of Sethiphera’s love for sport: the losers of the games, hung by hooks for all to see, a feast for the eyes, and carrion birds. I have watched them hang my victims one by one after each fight. I wonder how many it will take to hoist me when my time comes.

Around the outer wall of the arena doors open and from them warriors emerge. I stop counting at twenty and instead draw a line in the sand with my foot. The audience grows quiet as they gather. I laugh and taunt them, shouting, “Sethipherans, know this! I Ordwin, Silrafian: once mercenary, once king of the beast people, and now the amusement of this house of jackals. I, thrice cursed and lost, will spill my lifeblood this day, in this sand. The sand of the western desert, may it rise to swallow you all!”

Only the scuffs of boots as they close about me break the silence. When they can wait no longer, the first dozen charge me. Foolish, for they are but men and I the beast. I twist through their ranks, blocking the thrusts of the tridents and the swings of their swords. Behind me, my dagger and axe carve a bloody map of hell into their flesh.

The rest find what passes for courage among gladiators and they surround me, a storm of steel. For every knick, I smash the life out of two, for every stab, I tear through sinew, bone and muscle. The sand below me becomes a soup of blood and lymph as the unending swarm assails me.

My dagger shatters on a femur bone, leaving me with my short axe and my talons. A sword slides across my ribs, a shallow cut, but it bleeds. I find the arm that holds it and rip it from the shoulder. My body burns with exertion and my vision is grey. All I see are piles of the dead, and dying, bathed in hate and gore.

Beyond my rampart of broken flesh, only the youngest of the gladiators remain. How many I have killed, I cannot say. My opponents are young, their legs wet with piss and faces pale with fear. I raise my axe with a heavy arm, laced in wounds and filled with pain, to parry the thrusts of their spears. I knock their thrusts aside. I try to see beyond my opponents but the roaring crowd and a blinding light make it hard to see.

One of the many closes to impale me and I grab his spear, pulling him to me. I bring my axe down on a face too young to have tasted the lips of a lover, and watch his bright eyes go dim. The eyes of little more than a frightened child. A face that is some other warrior’s son. I hear the voice of my grandfather in my ears, loud and strong, like the leader of men he once was: “There is no water that can slake a thirst for revenge but that of the river of death.”

To my grandfather and to the gods I say, “No, no more. I want no more. I was wrong — this is enough.”

The gods hear me and I feel a spear part my ribs and enter my pounding heart. I feel it explode and my blood rush from me, but I am not afraid. I stand upon pristine, white sand and Death comes to me as little Iho comes. She of the fox face, and she smiles and whispers in my ear words, words I cannot not share. She comes with promises from those who sit at the table of the lost gods, the abandoned gods of the Silrafiki. She is beautiful, and brave. I take her small hand in mine and go.

So it is I die a king. I die a warrior. I die a father, and by Lothil’s hand against Theisius, ultimately I die victorious, with few regrets.

I go to the table of my grandfathers, and it is enough.
___________________________________________________________________________________________
Seamus got his start writing during the 90’s working in the roleplaying game industry. In 2010, he attended the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. Seamus is the co-founder and host of the Paradise Lost writing retreat held annually in Texas. You can learn more about him, and his writing at www.seamusbayne.net.


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